South African Wildlife offers so much more than the iconic 'Big 5'
Elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, leopard. Everybody knows the Big Five, which big-game hunters quoted as the animals most difficult, dangerous and prestigious to hunt. For many visitors to South Africa, spotting (no pun intended) at least some of the Big Five is a Must. However, no guarantees can be made that the proud lion, the secretive leopard, the imposing rhino, the bold buffalo or the majestic elephant will make an appearance in front of your camera. What can be guaranteed though is that if you keep your eyes open, you will discover many species of wildlife that will astonish you at their beauty, variety and ingenuity. By this we don’t just refer to zebra, giraffe and big buck either… read on…
Dassies: Beware of cuddling
Believe it or not, what looks like an oversized guinea pig with a bit of meerkat thrown into the gene pool is actually the closest living relative to the elephant! Dassies and elephants share a common ancestor, dying out about 50 million years ago. Similarities in teeth, claws, bone, organ structure and of course DNA still remain. True to its full name – Rock Dassie or Rock Hyrax – these quirky little animals live in rocky areas throughout Africa and the Middle East. In South Africa, you can find them anywhere from Table Mountain to the northern border, wherever they find a suitable habitat. Dassies adore the sun and spend hours basking in it, particularly during mornings and late afternoons. Growing to a length of 55 cm, and about 4.5 kg in weight, their stout body is covered in a thick, brownish-grey fur and rests on short legs. Padded feet enable them to be amazing climbers. The peaceful herbivore has a life span of about 10 years, but heavily preyed upon by eagle, caracal and leopard. These sociable animals live in large groups, and they are not particularly shy of people either. However, when a Dassie approaches you, do not fall for their little sweet face with the twinkling eyes. They may well be in search of food rather than friendship, and if they find you only offer the latter, you may be in for some impetuous snarling and growling. Additionally, they are territorial and not afraid to bite when they feel you are stomping on their ground. As with other wild animals, they are best enjoyed from a bit of a distance.
Baboons: Don’t get involved in their monkey business
On your way up to Cape Point, a big sign will warn you: “Baboons are dangerous and attracted by food”. The South African Cape Baboon, or Chacma Baboon, is one of the largest of all monkeys. They are brownish grey with black hands and feet, growing up to a height of 1.5 metres, carrying a weight of about 30 kilograms. Males are generally bigger than females with pointed canine teeth that are longer than those of a lion. Baboons live in large social groups, called troops, with each troop usually led by one dominant male. Their natural habitat reaches from the wind swept Cape over the grassy alpine slopes of the Drakensberg to the woodlands and semi dessert of the Karoo. The troop spends the night in trees or between rocks. In the mornings they swarm out to find food, and once successful, spend the afternoon resting in the shade, before embarking on more food hunting in the late afternoon. Diet includes leaves, fruit, roots, and berries as well as worms, scorpions or lizards. Unfortunately, baboons have long since discovered that the inside of a tourist’s backpack or car may hold even greater culinary delights. In some areas, including the Cape, they have become quite aggressive in approaching visitors and requesting their share of the lunch packet. Needless to say, you should never give in to their attempts of being fed, no matter how playful they might seem, or aggressively they might approach you. If you find yourself in the middle of a baboon encounter, stand still, give them enough space, don’t smile at them, don’t look them in the eye, but instead walk away calmly and make sure you keep all your belongings – edible and non-edible – safely stored away from them.
Great White Shark: Big jaws, little danger
Had game hunters not preferred solid ground to the choppy cold waters of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, they would most likely have included the Great White Shark in their list of “must-kills”. White Sharks appear to fit the description of “dangerous and difficult to hunt” perfectly. Regarding them being dangerous: Yes, they are predators, and every fibre of their body tells you so. Larger individuals may grow up to more than 6 metres in length and over 1,900 kg in weight. However, most females reach a size of “only” about 4.5 to 5 metres, males are generally a bit smaller with an average length of 3.5 to 4 metres. Their massive jaws exert a considerable bite force, skilful hunters, spying out their prey both below and above the sea surface. They have developed individual hunting techniques for different kinds of prey, and once they go into attack mode, nothing and no-one will be able to stop them. Apart from Orcas – or Killer Whales – which are known to be their only natural enemy, a much bigger enemy, though, is man. Pollution, global warming, overfishing and hunting have led to a steady decline in the white shark population worldwide, so they are now considered a vulnerable species. Little is known about the actual size of the remaining population. Estimates for the South African white shark population range from 500 to more than 1,200. When sharks attack human beings, it is usually mistaken identity. Shark attacks do happen in South Africa, however, statistically the risk of being seriously injured falling out of bed is far greater. As is the risk of choking on a hot dog, being hit by lightning or succumbing to the fatal attraction of taking selfies while standing too close to the edge of a cliff. A close encounter with a white shark does not have to be dangerous though. As part of our tours, we offer the opportunity to cage dive with them. From our own experience, we may report, it is an absolute awesome experience to meet the White Shark in their natural habitat, but always grateful to have a solid steel cage between us and them.
Dung Beetle: Round and round and round he goes
They are small, they are crawly, they have a brain the size of a grain of rice and they live on… poo! Why on earth would we want to include the dung beetle into our list of admirable South African wildlife? Because they deserve it! Not only are dung beetles vital to the functioning of numerous ecosystems by cleaning up other animals’ mess, turning it into nutritious soil, thereby also helping to prevent diseases to wildlife as well as livestock. But they are also fascinating when it comes to behaviour. Their incredible sensitive sense of smell guides them to the dung. After capturing the dung, they roll it into a ball that can be up to 10 times their weight. For the sake of comparison: For the author of these lines that would mean single-handedly tipping over a particularly well-fed cow and rolling it around the fields. Overnight the nocturnal dung beetles navigate by the stars, orienting themselves to the Milky Way. Polarizing by the moonlight, being the first and so far only known animal in the world to do so. Equally fascinating as the beetles themselves is the effort it takes to discover them. On a game drive, if the jeep suddenly comes to a stop with nothing between you and the horizon to justify such an abrupt manoeuvre, you may want to follow the finger of your guide pointing downwards. Guides are trained in spotting even the smallest of animals, telling you that the Big Five and other animals heavily rely on the likes of the dung beetle for their survival and well-being. So do consider taking a pic of this amazing creature pushing the big ball of poo for the holiday album, right?
Weaver Birds: Artful tree-house architects
South Africa boasts a large variety of birds. With more than 800 different species, the country is a haven for birdwatchers. And while the long-legged ostrich and the majestic eagle draw most attention, one family of birds that never seizes to amaze are the weaver birds. There are 116 different types of weaver birds, most of which live in the woodlands, bushlands or open grasslands of Sub-Saharan Africa. Their name is derived from the skilful techniques they use to build their nests. It is the task of the male to weave the beautiful nests out of grass, twigs, straw and reeds. Once completed the females inspect the nest and decide whether she likes it enough to make it the family home. If the nest is not to up to her standards, she mercilessly tears at it in disgust, the male, will start all over again. He builds up to 30 nests before the female rates one fit for moving in, after which she will take over the interior decorating by putting in the lining. The remnants of his previous efforts are left unoccupied, sometimes used by other birds as dwellings. Many members of the weaver family are quite colourful, their feathers shining in different shades of orange and yellow. Weavers are sociable often living in colonies building a huge “palace”, providing room for up to 500 birds and reaching a size of up to 7 metres and over a ton in weight. The woven nests are visible all over the country. It pays to pause and watch the them for a while, thus paying some respect to the tremendous architectural skills of these industrious little birds.
Cows, goats and donkeys: Not wild but free - Not exotic but everywhere
Yes, we know: You do not come to South Africa to see cattle. But believe us, whether you want to or not, you are bound to encounter cows, goats, donkeys, horses, sheep, chicken or guinea fowl at one point or the other on the ride. In the rural areas they are ‘African traffic police’ slowing down vehicles as they occasionally step out into the road. In rural areas, families keep livestock to generate or support their income, cattle denote wealth in traditional African culture. They are often grazed by the side of the road and left to their own devices. Be it individual animals or small herds, there is always an element of free-roaming involved. So rather than swearing at the poor cattle, just watch out for them, and if you happen to see them, take their presence as a part of the African way of life, which at the end of the day is also something you came here for. Or isn’t it?
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